Most of NSW is still experiencing drought. At the end of 2019 we had seen up to three years of drought across the entire state - worse than the 1940s drought or the Millennium drought in many areas. From February 2020 there has been seen some improvement in conditions, particularly along the north and central coast, but the majority of the state is still drought affected.
In 2019 conditions were drier and hotter than any other NSW drought in the last 120 years. From January 2017 to December 2019, rainfall was the lowest on record. The 2017, 2018 and 2019 calendar years were the warmest on record. Despite some rain in the first few months of 2020, major rural NSW water storages are approximately 29% of capacity (11 May 2020) on average.
All the major inland NSW river systems, except the Murrumbidgee Valley (shown in the map below) are classified in emerging/recovering, severe or critical drought stages. However, there has been a de-escalation of drought stages in some valleys in 2020.
Northern basin overview
Inflows to each of the major northern inland NSW regulated rivers were the lowest on record in 2019. Northern inland NSW has experienced many two-year periods of sustained low inflows. 2019 saw an unprecedented third year of drought, with drought continuing to affect most of the state in the first months of 2020. The major river systems still experiencing the worst effects of this drought are the Macquarie and Peel.
Major storages in all the northern inland NSW remain at low levels. There was no significant winter or spring rainfall in 2019 resulting in inflows, and inflows in early 2020 into the storages have been welcome but not drought-breaking.
Any new inflows to the northern basin since early-2018 were first preserved for high priority needs, consistent with water sharing plan rules and the NSW Extreme Events Policy.
River and overland flows in the Northern Basin in January and up to the end of February 2020 resulting from localised rainfall events were protected from most commercial extraction. These restrictions ensured that critical town, domestic and stock and refuge pools were replenished and river systems were connected for the first time for many years.
As a result of these restrictions, flows began arriving at Menindee Lakes from 10 March 2020 and provided sufficient water for a much-needed release along the full length of the Lower Darling. Flows reached the junction with the Murray River in April 2020, providing connectivity along the full length of the Barwon and Darling Rivers for the first time in many years. View more information on the Northern Basin restrictions and Lower Darling Releases.
How we’re responding
In light of these unprecedented conditions, the NSW government is responding in a range of ways to support those most affected by water shortages:
1. Clearer policy direction
Launched the NSW Extreme Events Policy in October 2018
Developed Incident Response Guides which form schedules to all the draft water resource plans in the NSW Murray-Darling Basin. Incident response guides outline the approach for managing water during extreme water shortage or critical water quality events
Regularly update the four stages defining the severity of water shortages
Construction of emergency infrastructure works, such as temporary weirs, pipelines and access to lower levels in storages to extend town water and other high priority supplies for as long as possible
Changes to river system operations to preserve remaining supplies for critical human water needs
A coordinated approach across government to mitigate poor water quality and fish death events, including emergency response planning, increased monitoring, artificial oxygenation and fish relocation
Appointment in January 2019 of the Regional Town Water Supply coordinator to ensure every regional town in NSW has safe, clean drinking water
Establishment in November 2019 of the Office of Drought Response to better coordinate support delivered by all NSW Government agencies for farmers, communities, businesses and towns affected by drought
Stage 2 - recovering - de-escalated from Stage 4 critical on 23 March 2020 and from Stage 3 severe on 1 May 2020.
Menindee Lakes around 19% (350 GL) and increasing.
Zero general security allocation for most of 2019/20.
30% announced on 1 May 2020.
All carryover suspended until restrictions lifted on 30 March 2020.
Last previous general security allocation made in 1 July 2017.
Reduced allocations announced for high priority (town, domestic and stock) and high security (permanent plantings) needs were announced on 1 July 2019. These were increased to full (100%) allocations on 1 April 2020.
Restrictions on access to river and overland flows across the entire Northern Basin from February to end of March 2020 is expected to result in over 500 GL entering Lake Wetherell - the flows began arriving from 10 March and were the first substantial natural inflows into the Lakes for three years.
Temporary water restriction put in place on 4 December 2018 in the Lower Darling limiting water extraction to high priority needs only. This restriction was lifted on 30 March 2020.
Four block banks constructed in river in 2018 to pool water for stock and permanent plantings. These were removed in March 2020 to allow releases from the Lakes to flow along the length of the Lower Darling. The release commenced on 26 March 2020 and flows reached the junction with the Murray River around 21 April 2020. The size and timing of the release was designed to minimise the impacts on water quality and fish.
Pipeline from Murray River to supply Broken Hill began operation in April 2019.
Water carting has been provided for domestic water for some landholders not connected to town supplies. A rebate of $2,000 was also provided to landholders in 2020 who normally accessed domestic water from the river
DPI Fisheries installed aerators at four locations and three were installed by OzFish and local community in 2019/20. These were removed as the Lower Darling releases progressed down the river.
In September 2019, 783 large adult fish were relocated to more permanent water.
Valley based technical groups, including government and community representatives, established in the Lower Darling to advise on strategic interventions and priority actions for fish management, including the size and timing of releases from Menindee Lakes from late March.
Critical Water Advisory Panel operating.
Fish deaths in December 2018 and January 2019 because of low dissolved oxygen levels.
Small number of deaths in November 2019 and at Wentworth in January 2020.
Fish deaths occurred around 12 March 2020 as a result of the poor quality of water at the front of the flow entering Lake Wetherell. Water quality improved as more water entered the lakes.
No fish deaths occurred as a result of the managed release from the Lakes into the Lower Darling.
Normal regulated river operations re-commenced in April 2020, with all block banks removed and enough resource available to supply landholders and maintain connectivity to the Murray for at least 12 to 18 months.
High priority and high security users expected to receive full allocation on 1 July 2020.
Stage 2 - recovering - de-escalated from Stage 4 critical to Stage 3 severe on 23 March 2020 and then to Stage 2 on 1 May 2020.
Allocations announced on 1 July 2019, but water unable to be pumped by irrigators until temporary water restrictions were lifted in late February 2020.
From end of February 2020, river levels variously triggered A, B and in some sections C class pumping along the Barwon-Darling.
A release of environmental water Northern Connectivity Event in autumn/winter of 2018 from the Gwydir and Border Rivers provided a small flow down to Menindee Lakes.
During March to August 2019 inflows from tributaries, local rainfall and another environmental release - Northern Fish Flow event - restarted flows in some sections and replenished town weir pools and fish refuge pools. However, flows did not reach Menindee Lakes.
Rainfall in early November 2019 provided flows down the Warrego River and flows over the Bourke town water weir. This was the first time in over 400 days that flows had occurred over the Bourke town weir.
Flows re-commenced along the Barwon-Darling River from February 2020 as a result of inflows from the northern catchments which were restricted from extraction through river pumping and from floodplain harvesting across the Northern Basin. By March 2020 flows had reached Wilcannia and began entering Menindee Lakes from 10 March 2020.
Restrictions placed on pumping from mid-January to end of February 2020 to protect inflows from northern catchments for critical needs. These were lifted upstream of Culgoa junction on 29 February and downstream of Culgoa junction on 6 March 2020.
Restriction on A, B, C class pumping between Culgoa junction and Menindee Lakes between 4 November to 31 December 2019 to protect inflows for critical needs.
A restriction on pumping from the lower Namoi River applied on 31 March 2019 allowed some flow to reach Walgett, at the junction with the Barwon River. This restriction was repealed on 6 May 2019.
The 2019 environmental water release of around 30 GL from Glenlyon Dam in the Border Rivers and Copeton Dam in the Gwydir reached Warraweena on 28 July, but not Bourke - travelling over 1,500 river kilometres.
Two aerators installed in the Collarenebri weir pool in collaboration with local fishing club and Aboriginal community.
Funding provided to towns for emergency bore supplies and in the case of Walgett and Bourke for works to improve quality.
Critical fish refuges pools have been mapped along the Barwon-Darling.
Critical Water Advisory Panel - operating.
Until restrictions were lifted towards the end of February/start of March 2020, Barwon-Darling irrigators had not been able to pump any significant water since mid-2017.
Prior to the 2020 flows, flows had been mostly protected to replenish town, domestic and stock supplies and refuge pools.
In 2019 towns had to access artesian bore water because of lack of surface water supplies. Concerns over higher sodium levels.
Regular red and amber alerts for blue-green algae along the river as a result of low flows.
A number of fish deaths because of drying refuge pools in 2019.
Return of flows along the Barwon-Darling River in 2020 resulted in fish spawning and dispersal of larvae down river to the Menindee Lakes.
Significant rainfall occurred across the northern valleys over January - April 2020.
Barwon-Darling is now flowing from Mungindi to Menindee Lakes - the first time substantial flow has occurred along the full length of the river and into Menindee Lakes for a number of years.
Further flows into the Barwon-Darling are expected in 2020 which will continue to allow irrigation pumping as per the normal flow class access rules under the water sharing plan.
Upper and Lower Namoi River
Stage 3 severe water shortage - Lower Namoi - de-escalated from Stage 4 critical on 23 March 2020.
Stage 2 - recovering - Upper Namoi - de-escalated from Stage 4 critical to Stage 3 severe on 23 March 2020 and then to Stage recovering on 1 May 2020.
Keepit Dam increased to 14% (48 GL) by mid May 2020 from almost empty at the start of 2020.
Split Rock Dam at 5% (18 GL).
The Namoi Valley experienced the lowest inflow between 2017 and 2019 (worst drought) since 1918.
Zero for general security in Lower Namoi for 2019/20 and all carryover water suspended until 25 February 2020 when suspension lifted.
Last Lower Namoi general security allocation made in August 2017.
Zero for general security in the Upper Namoi for most of 2019/20 until a 50% allocation was made on 22 April 2020. Suspension of carryover water was lifted on 25 February 2020.
Reduced high security allocations for both the Upper and Lower Namoi Valleys for most of 2019/20 until full high security allocations announced on 22 April 2020, however water being provided through river flows in the Lower Namoi.
Water transferred from Split Rock to Keepit Dam during 2018 and 2019.
No releases made to Lower Namoi water users during 2019.
First release since December 2018 was made in March 2020 to supply some domestic and stock users.
Natural inflows caused by rainfall in late March 2019 were restricted to town, domestic and stock and high security access only. Some useful flows reached Walgett in April. Restrictions on access repealed on 6 May 2019.
Temporary water restrictions (section 324 order) were placed on water users on 6 December 2019 in the Upper Namoi, restricting access to water to secure town water supplies for Manilla township. These have now been lifted.
Restrictions on access to inflows applied during January and February 2020 across the Northern Basin limiting access to critical needs. Flows reached Walgett and entered the Barwon-Darling River from 9 February. These restrictions ended late February, with some limited access to certain areas during this period where flows had exceeded target levels.
Releases from Split Rock Dam re-commenced from April 2020, once two years reserve for town water supply was available in the storage.
Two solar aerators installed in Keepit Dam in 2019.
Pian Creek replenishment flow provided in February/March 2020.
Fish refuge pools mapped and fish rescues were undertaken during December 2019.
Critical Water Advisory Panel operating.
Because of low water levels boating access to Keepit Dam was limited in 2019.
Low flows downstream of Keepit Dam and high temperatures contributed to fish deaths in January 2019 and further deaths throughout the system in November 2019 because of very low water availability.
Fish deaths around Narrabri, Gunnedah, Carroll and Boggabri in late January/early February 2020 as a result of short sharp rise in river flows.
Regular red and amber alerts for blue-green algae in Split Rock Dam and Keepit Dam.
Storages need about 37 GL of inflow before normal regulated river operations can resume.
Stage 3 severe water shortage, eased from Stage 4 critical on 13 May 2020
Burrendong Dam at 21% (241 GL).
Windamere Dam at 27% (100 GL).
New drought of record – inflows are approximately 1/3 of previous record low inflow.
Zero for general security for 2019/20 and all carryover water suspended. Some lifting of these restrictions expected in late May.
Last general security allocation made in August 2017.
Reduced high priority (town, domestic and stock) and high security allocations for 2019/20. These were increased to 100% on 13 May 2020.
Initial transfer of water from Windamere to Burrendong Dam in January 2019. Recent inflows have delayed the second phase of the transfer (leaving the agreed 70 GL reserve in Windamere Dam) to at least June 2021.
Environmental flow rules and allocation provisions in the water sharing plan suspended in July 2019 until June 2020. Process underway to revoke suspension.
Raising of Warren Weir ceased regulated river flow to the lower river and Duck and Crooked Creeks from October 2019 to prioritise water for towns, including Dubbo, Nyngan and Cobar. Regulated flow in Gunningbar Creek ceased in December 2019.
Work deferred at Burrendong Dam to enable pumping of storage below outlet works.
Some flows to the lower river and Macquarie Marshes are being provided from tributary inflows as a result of storm generated flows in 2020. Temporary drought works at Warren Weir, Gunningbar Weir and Duck Creek offtake have been removed to deliver stock and domestic supplies and replenish river pools.
Restrictions on access to inflows applied during January and February 2020 across the Northern Basin limiting access to critical needs. These restrictions ended late February, with some limited access to certain areas during this period where flows had exceeded target levels.
Some access to supplementary water delayed in April for a short period to allow flows into the Northern reedbed of the Macquarie Marshes.
The Government committed $8.3 million for the off-stream storage for Nyngan and Cobar, $2 million for critical maintenance of the Albert Priest Channel which supplies Nyngan and Cobar, $30 million to Dubbo to expand its borefield and $2 million to allow Narromine to access groundwater.
Mapping of critical fish refuge pools. In February 2019, 59 endangered Southern Purple Spotted Gudgeons were rescued from drying pools in two creeks in the Macquarie River catchment and relocated to refuge sites, including Taronga Western Plans Zoo. In November 2019 220 fish were relocated to hatcheries or other river areas.
New dissolved oxygen sensors were installed in Macquarie River and a large bubble plume aerator at Burrendong Dam in 2019 to improve the quality of remaining water.
Environmental account water was not able to be released from the dam until storage conditions improved. Repeal of suspension of water sharing plan underway.
Fish deaths in the Macquarie river near Wellington, Dubbo and below Warren and in Cudgegong River in January/early February 2020 as a result of short sharp rises in river levels from local storm events.
Regular red alerts for blue-green algae in Windamere and Burrendong dams.
Recent downstream inflows in early 2020 to May have secured critical supplies for 24 months.
Lifting of some restrictions on suspended carryover water are under consideration.
Stage 2 recovering water de-escalated from Stage 3 severe on 23 March 2020.
Copeton Dam at 13% (170 GL) of active capacity.
Zero for general security for most of 2019/20, but all carryover water available. Small 1.9% general security allocation announced on 7 May 2020.
Previous last general security allocation made in August 2017.
Full high priority and high security allocations for 2019/20.
Environmental releases were made in April 2019 to provide flow along the Lower Gwydir and Mehi system into the Barwon-Darling.
Environmental releases from October 2019 to January 2020 to improve quality of fish refuge pools.
Delivery of water in 2019/20 in block releases to conserve supplies.
Restrictions on access across the Northern Basin in January/February 2020 to protect flows for critical needs. These ended 28 February, but access for high security and some general security was permitted from run of river flows during the period.
Some supplementary access has been permitted.
Copeton Dam on red alert for blue-green algae.
Fish deaths in late January/early February 2020 near Moree and Bingara as a result of short sharp rise in river flows from localised storms.
Following significant rainfall Copeton Dam received 70 GL inflow during February - March.
Stage 3 severe water shortage - de-escalated from Stage 4 critical on 23 March 2020.
Pindari Dam at 11.6% (36 GL) of active capacity.
Glenlyon Dam at 14.2% (36 GL).
Zero allocation for general security A and B class for 2019/20, and 50% of carryover water suspended until 25 February when suspension fully lifted.
Last general security B class allocation made in January 2018.
Full allocations announced for high priority and high security licence holders, although delivery of water was limited.
Environmental water was released in April/May 2019 to replenish waterholes for native fish along the river and into the Barwon-Darling to Brewarrina.
Priority in 2019/20 is to provide for town water supplies, with flows provided in block releases.
Final dam releases were made in the Border Rivers to Boggabilla Weir for Boggabilla and Goondiwindi town water supplies in December 2019. However tributary inflows in February replenished town water storages, including Mungindi.
Restrictions on access across the Northern Basin in January/February 2020 to protect flows for critical needs. These have now been lifted. Mungindi weir pool filled.
Some supplementary access has been permitted.
Inflows are below average.
Dam releases were not able to be made to reach Mungindi in December 2019. However Mungindi weir pool has filled following recent rain events.
Some fish kills in November 2019 as a result of runoff from bushfire affected areas.
Fish deaths in Macintrye and Severn Rivers in January/early February 2020 as a result of short sharp rise in river flows.
Regular red alerts for blue-green algae in Pindari Dam and Boggabilla Weir.
Rainfall throughout February to March generated significant flows in the northern valleys. Catchment is now wet and so should respond quickly if further rainfall occurs.
Last general security allocation made in October 2018.
Reduced allocations for high priority (town and domestic and stock) and for high security users, although regulated supply on the Peel River below Dungowan ceased from the start of December 2019.
Restrictions on access across the Northern Basin in January/February 2020 to protect flows for critical needs. These ended on 28 February but access for high security users was permitted during this period.
Temporary weirs constructed in the Peel River to extend supply for Tamworth and reduce around 17,000 ML in transmission losses below Chaffey Dam. The Government committed $3.4 million for these works and $2 million for further supply investigations.
Rule in the water sharing plan requiring a minimum daily release from Chaffey Dam suspended on 2 December 2019. Pulse releases for environmental purposes are being made instead to conserve water.
New pipeline from Chaffey Dam to Dungowan expected to be operational in May 2020 to further conserve water supplies for Tamworth.
Government has announced that it will construct a new larger Dungowan Dam.
Mixers installed at priority sites in the Peel to improve quality of remaining pools.
Inflows into the dam are low and transmission losses below Chaffey Dam in 2019 were at record high levels.
Supply below Dungowan restricted from the start of December 2019 and alternative supply required for downstream commercial users. Inflows from rainfall in January and February 2020 has provided some supplies for high priority security users.
Some fish deaths in December 2019 below Dungowan as a result of ceasing flows and in January 2020 as a result of poor water quality from storm generated inflows.
All efforts are being made to extend Tamworth's supply, and following completion of pipeline from Chaffey Dam, town water supplies will be able to be met until 2021 even if inflows cease.
Chaffey Dam needs to reach 25% capacity before Tamworth's severe town water restrictions can be eased.
Dartmouth Dam is at 48% (1839 GL) - shared resource.
Hume Dam is at 19% (562 GL).
No general security allocation for most of 2019/20, although full carryover water is available. 3% general security allocation announced on 15 May 2020.
Previous last general security allocation made in March 2018.
Full high priority and maximum security allocations (97%) provided, although conveyance allocations are restricted.
Environmental releases made in August and September 2019.
Conveyance allocations reduced, but have been increasing with inflows.
Commonwealth released environmental spring flow starting in August for 2 weeks and then September 2019 for 6 weeks. The flow was designed to water the Barmah-Millewa and Koondrook Perricoota Forests and provide flow through the system to the Lower Lakes.
Environmental water deliveries continued in 2020 to meet environmental objectives.
The resources of the Murray River are shared between NSW, Victoria and South Australia.
The River Murray system as a whole experienced 'near extreme' dry inflow conditions for 2018/19 and 'very dry' inflow conditions for 2019/20.
Regular red and amber blue-green algae alerts in Hume Dam and along the river.
High priority and carryover water should be able to be met in 2020/21.
Further inflows are required to provide a general security allocation.
Algal blooms occur across the state and can contribute to fish deaths, although the incidence and risk reduces as temperatures cool. Algal blooms impact on the use of river water and dams for recreation and impact on aquatic life. Towns also need to provide additional water treatment for water affected by algae.
Drought conditions have led most NSW rural towns to impose some level of water restrictions. Information on specific town restrictions are available from the local councils' websites or can be searched on the website of the Bureau of Meteorology.